Most people live a life that is more or less laid before them at birth. There will be a few options along the way, naturally. One may choose this or that school, this or that career, this or that spouse, this or that religion, this or that house. But rarely, very rarely will one choose the person he or she wishes to be. There are reasons for this. The most vulgar reason is that parents find it in their own interest to control their children, whether for motives of ego or more practical concerns like ensuring someone will provide for them in old age. Any child who chooses her own path may well choose something that fails to benefit the parents. In a far more sinister way, society establishes customs and institutions meant to proscribe the identity of its citizens. By enslaving citizens with, say, the debt of a mortgage, or by excluding them from seemingly desirable social inclusion, society maintains a stranglehold on the freedom of those citizens. In this way, people are forced to dedicate themselves to pursuits that neither suit nor benefit them. We have only to think on forms of commerce or war that appear to benefit society and yet are highly destructive to the well-being of an individual.
Luckily there are always people who, while few in number, embark upon the foolhardy endeavor of finding their own path, of creating an identity for themselves rather than accepting the grotesque mask handed them by others. Perhaps they are mystics or thinkers, artists or wanderers, prophets or poets or madmen. Perhaps they are beings of another sort that a small mind like my own cannot comprehend. Most of us avoid them; few, if any of us, understand them. Yet, they serve a most valuable role in human society: They remind us that things are not what they seem in life — whatever we think reality is, we can be most sure that is precisely what it is not.
It behooves us to recall the human tendency to delusion. The greatest obstacle to choosing the path is not family or society. It is always oneself. To radically embrace all that it means to be human — and in the process to become free without being selfish, to become a true individual without being individualistic — is a terrifying task, and when fear is a way of life, as it is for most of us, we’re unlikely to confront the challenge. You and I are more likely to be bohemians or contrarians than prophets, more apt to be professional religionists than mystics. Yet somewhere in all of us there is the seed of radical living. The fact that some human beings have already broken the bonds of spiritual fear and existential conformity gives hope to all of us. A different life is possible.
Since I was young, I’ve had the tendency to make the wrong choice at crossroad moments; or make the right choice for the wrong reason. This is my experience! Once I was quite fixed on becoming a great man, performing great deeds and I was certain that by my forties (I’m 43 now) I should be well along this path of greatness and the world would be better for it. That was delusion, naturally, but I will not call my childhood aspirations nonsense or belittle that former me. I was a child, after all, and children should be encouraged in their noble aspirations; yet sooner or later one must understand that dreams offer no abiding home. That is a painful and necessary lesson.
And so this morning I awoke from my dreams and understood that I’m not at all far along the path: I’m at the very beginning. Perhaps only a fool or a madman would take comfort in this but for a human being to awaken from dreams, even midway through life, is an immense grace, as most of our kind never awaken at all, never realize, even for a moment, that they are lost in the realm of shadows.
The journey ahead is long and arduous; many never complete it. Many more never even begin it. In another forty years I may find that I’m still at the gate, still waiting to begin. Or perhaps I’ll find you and we’ll share some part of the journey together. Today is a new day and for each of us a new life is possible.
December 4, 2016